The words “disabled list” are a nightmare to athletes; being on that list means they can’t play, and down the line, they can’t demand more lucrative contracts as a result of non-performance. Even if their names are well known, teams have to heavily weigh the risk of signing an oft-injured player. The effect of injury goes far beyond the athlete—the coach is often forced to scramble for a replacement and alter their game strategy, and to a lesser extent, the franchise itself might see less fan turnout if a fan favorite is injured.
While plenty of athletes end up on the disabled list for various reasons and different levels of severity, there have been plenty of advances in technology to help minimize the time spent on it. For example, FC Barcelona, one of the biggest association football (soccer) clubs in the world, is utilizing DNA testing to prevent injuries from occurring. Their DNA testing, which allows the club to learn about each player’s muscle problems, has allowed the club to tailor specialized training ground methods for each player to prevent most injuries and minimize the impact of injuries if they do occur.
So what can wearables do about athletic injuries? They can measure the athlete’s performance using sweat, which SFGate calls the most ubiquitous response to physical activity. “Sweat is an interesting body fluid,” said lead researcher Ali Javey, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley. “It is rich with information, filled with chemicals.” Scientists are measuring in real-time levels of electrolytes, metabolites and skin temperature using a flexible, wearable band of sensors.
The band senses the composition of four main compounds in sweat, sending the information to a smartphone app that can let athletes know that they are risking dehydration, cramping or overheating, all of which could contribute to stints on the disabled list. Cramping has disabled even the greatest sports figures of all time like NBA legend Michael Jordan, who once admitted to having severe cramps and fatigue during a game in 1995,when he had just returned from his professional baseball stint to resume playing basketball. “I was cramping so bad I didn’t really want to dunk,” Jordan said.
20 years later, it seems that wearables are here to help treat these issues. “If a person is very active, they want to know what their losses are so they can manage the losses and replace what they lose,” said George Brooks, professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. “It’s sort of like why we wear the heart rate monitors, so we know the level of effort we put in. This even goes beyond that.” The wearables might also be able to detect blood sugar levels and blood flow problems, something that athletes of the past may not have had the benefit of knowing until it was too late and they ended up on the disabled list.
The researchers at UC Berkeley intend to take their wearable beyond helping athletes. “In the future, I imagine that we will all have devices like this to measure a range of different things,” Brooks said. “There are many medical applications.” While the researchers have filed a patent on their work, they are not currently collaborating with any company to commercialize the technology. However, they are open to letting any wearable company try to convert their technology into a product that can be sold in stores. “This is just academic-based research for proof of concept, so it would be up to a company to apply this technology and put it into a product,” Javey said. “But we do hope our technology could eventually be translated into a product sometime in the future.”